MSNBC on Wednesday promoted a study suggesting that gays are more likely to kill themselves in conservative parts of the country. News Live co-host Thomas Roberts explained, "There's a disturbing new study showing suicide attempts by teen, gay or straight, are more frequent in conservative areas where schools don't have programs supporting gay rights."
Roberts talked to the study's author, Columbia University researcher Mark Hatzenbuehler, and wondered, "Is it strictly something that needs to be looked through a lens of liberal and conservative? It seems kind of daft to think it's just all politics."
The professor did try and back down on that particular point, saying party affiliation "misses the point." He asserted, "We did include, in our measure of the social environment, the proportion of Democrats living in the county, and that's because previous studies have shown that political affiliation is associated with attitudes towards gays and lesbians."
Highlighting teen suicide and the study's finding, Roberts added, "...But it was basically boils down to social tolerance?"
A transcript of the April 20 segment, which aired at 11:48am, follows:
THOMAS ROBERTS: There's a disturbing new study showing suicide attempts by teen, gay or straight, are more frequent in conservative areas where schools don't have programs supporting gay rights. The study of nearly 32,000 high school students focused on Oregon and found teens there were more likely to attempt suicide in less socially tolerant counties. I'm joined now by Mark Hatzenbuehler, a psychologist and researcher at Columbia University. He authored this study. So, Mark, explain to us, so how do you explain these findings? Is it strictly something that needs to be looked through a lens of liberal and conservative? It seems kind of daft to think it's just all politics.
MARK HATZENBUEHLER: Right. And I think, unfortunately, that this study, the way in which some people have tried to explain this study is through that lens. And I think, unfortunately, that sort of misses the point of what I think this study is about. We did include, in our measure of the social environment, the proportion of Democrats living in the county, and that's because previous studies have shown that political affiliation is associated with attitudes towards gays and lesbians. But I think, sort of, focusing on that really deflects attention from what I think is really the main point of the study. And that's really, how do we create supportive environments for our youth? And so, our measure of the social environment actually focuses most on school climates, because, of course, that's where students are spending a lot of their time. And, so we looked at things like whether or not schools have gay/straight alliances. Do they have anti-discrimination policies that protect gay youth? And do they have anti-bullying policies? And what we're showing is that youth who live in these kind of schools that implement protective policies have lower rates of suicide attempts compared to those that live in less supported school districts.
ROBERTS: And surprisingly, your study also says that suicide attempts have gone up for teens who aren't bullied, aren't depressed. So does that surprise you?
HATZENBUEHLER: Well, what we did was we actually controlled for experiences of depression and bullying. Previous studies have shown those kinds of individual level risk factors matter. But, we were sort of pulling back a little bit in the study and trying to understand not on an individual level what puts people at risk for suicide, but is there something about the social context in which youth live that places them at risk? And I think that's really sort of the take home message from this study. And it really provides, I think, a road map of how we can reduce suicide attempts in youth through altering and changing the social environment in which they live.
ROBERTS: From doing this, the tipping point that really, I guess, changed from county to county and how you were able to correlate these tremendous loss of life, teen suicide, it is a terrible epidemic, but it was basically boils down to social tolerance?
HATZENBUEHLER: Well, I think that, again, we looked at several different dimensions of the social context. We looked at the proportion of same sex couples who live in the counties and which suggests providing couples who live in counties that are more tolerant are- that was one of the dimensions we looked at in the study for that reason. But, again, I think our real focus was on school climate and it suggests that when schools try to create climates through increasing tolerance, decreasing bullying and discrimination and harassment, it is really creating environments that are supportive and healthy for gay youth, but equally important it is creating healthy environments for all youth, irrespective of sexual orientation. And I think that's an important part of the study.